The House Freedom Caucus was founded early in 2015 as a more rigorously ideological alternative to the Republican Study Committee, a caucus some conservatives deemed too passive and riddled with RINOs. It quickly came to serve as a deliberately abrasive pressure group within the House, gaining leverage via members’ willingness to sabotage Republican leaders. In its relatively short life, the Freedom Caucus devolved into a faction of ultra-loyalists to Donald Trump and his eccentric causes. Once obeisance to Trump and obstruction of a Democratic Congress came to dominate the entire Republican conference, the Freedom Caucus lost its mojo. But now, it’s poised for a comeback: If Republicans retake the House in 2022, as expected, the group could return to its roots as a thorn in the side of the House Republican leadership.
Well before Trump completed his conquest of the Republican Party, the Freedom Caucus operated as the congressional wing of the rebellious Tea Party movement, attacking Barack Obama’s legislative agenda day and night. More notably, the Freedom Caucus made life a living hell for House Speaker John Boehner whenever he sought to cooperate with Obama on such basic issues as keeping the federal government open. Its first chair, Jim Jordan of Ohio, initiated the parliamentary maneuver that ended Boehner’s career in 2015. The Freedom Caucus also appears to have played a role in blocking then-Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid to succeed Boehner as Speaker. The leadership transitions from Boehner to Paul Ryan, and then Ryan to McCarthy were all accompanied by successful hostage-taking and ransom-cashing exercises from Freedom Caucus members, giving them a reputation for power far out of proportion to their numbers.
When Trump was elected in 2016, however, the Freedom Caucus fell into line with the administration, and quickly transitioned from ideological gadflies to MAGA loyalists. They had no particular power other than their influence over the Trump administration; two of their most prominent members, first Mick Mulvaney and then Mark Meadows, served as White House chiefs of staff. Non-Trumpy Freedom Caucus members drifted away. Charter member Justin Amash of Michigan, for example, eventually left the Caucus, the Congress, and the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the Freedom Caucus began to attract new members whose idea of conservatism began and ended with the wishes of the 45th president.
Most recently, the Freedom Caucus has become the political home of right-wing troublemakers who often embarrass and even defy the party leadership, Trumpy as it is: Mo Brooks, Lauren Boebert, Madison Cawthorn, Andrew Clyde, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Louie Gohmert, Paul Gosar, Jody Hice, and Chip Roy are all self-confessed members; Jim Jordan is also still around. This week, Pennsylvania’s Scott Perry was elected as the Caucus’s next chairman. He is mostly renowned for his avid support for Trump’s attempted election coup, leading the floor fight to deny recognition of Joe Biden’s Pennsylvania electors on January 6, and before that, serving as a back-channel sponsor of Jeffrey Clark, the Justice Department underling Trump tried to make acting attorney general in order to give official sanction to his efforts to get state legislatures to reverse the presidential results.
Now Perry is positioned to lead the Freedom Caucus back to the extraordinary power it possessed when Republicans last controlled the House. Only this time, the holy cause won’t be Tea Party–style conservatism, but the views and interests of the former president. In that respect, the Freedom Caucus is simply the leading edge of the revolution that has overtaken the GOP and “movement conservatism” generally since 2016.
You have to figure Kevin McCarthy is nervous about these developments. Right on the very cusp of his likely ascension to the Speakership — taking the gavel away from his hated California colleague Nancy Pelosi, no less — he will again have to come to grips with the Freedom Caucus’s demands and its willingness to engage in destructive conduct to get its way, just like you-know-who. Indeed, until such time as Trump rules it out, it’s likely the Freedom Caucus has as its (so-to-speak) trump card the possibility of a motion to push McCarthy aside and make the former president himself the next Speaker. Who’s going to risk the wrath of the overwhelming front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination by standing with McCarthy?
Whether or not that threat is made or executed, McCarthy and House Republicans generally are surely watching the future preparations by the Freedom Caucus with the kind of trepidation any of us would feel upon hearing the Hound of the Baskervilles howling in the near distance. A group of experienced ideological extortionists answering to gangster leadership of Trump is going to be hard to handle for the poor schmoes trying to keep the GOP from falling into a moral and political abyss. As Boehner once said, the House Freedom Caucus stands for “total chaos.” They are perfectly suited to be the shock troops for the King of Chaos in Mar-a-Lago.